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Little Ears and Little Voices: Speech and Hearing Care for Preemies

May 07, 2018
Blog Speech and Hearing for Preemies

Early identification and treatment of speech and hearing disorders is critically important for all infants and children. One population that requires extra care and attention are infants who are treated in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). In order to develop speech and language appropriately, a child needs to hear approximately 45 million words by the age of 4.

For the tiniest patients, several days, weeks, and months may be spent in the hospital or NICU. Just because a child is in the hospital does not mean that hearing and listening aren’t important. Audiologists and speech pathologists work together to make sure that a child has exposure to language while admitted, which can lead toward better outcomes once the child comes home from the NICU.

Audiologists are professionals that diagnose and treat hearing loss. Speech-language pathologists are professionals who diagnose and treat speech-language, voice and swallowing disorders. These professionals may be active members of the multidisciplinary team of medical staff that care for infants in the NICU.  

Approximately 2-3 out of every 1,000 babies are born with permanent hearing loss each year, and infants who spend time in the NICU are at an even higher risk of being born with or developing permanent hearing loss. In order to identify and diagnose hearing loss as early as possible, all babies born in the United States have a hearing screening completed before going home from the hospital, called the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening. 

What does an audiologist do?

Due to the higher risk of hearing loss for babies in the NICU, it is an audiologist’s job to monitor these tiny patients closely and perform hearing screenings once appropriate. If a baby does not pass the newborn hearing screening and follow-up testing shows that the child has permanent hearing loss, an audiologist can work together with the medical staff and family to dispense and fit hearing aids that are appropriate for the child’s hearing loss while still in the NICU. Without appropriately fit hearing aids, a child will not have adequate access to speech sounds which can be detrimental for the development of speech and language.

What does a speech-pathologist do?

When a child is fit with appropriate amplification, it is very important that their speech and language development be closely monitored by a speech-language pathologist. The speech- pathologist will work with children and their parents on identifying and producing speech sounds, following directions, and play skills. Speech–language pathologists who work in the NICU also diagnose and treat infants with feeding delays and toddlers and those with tracheostomy tubes by using a special speaking valve to allow them to communicate with their family.

No matter the length of stay in the NICU, short or long, early evaluation, intervention and connection to speech and hearing services can help improve outcomes for children with hearing loss and language delays so they have the chance to develop speech and language milestones at the same, or similar, rate as their normal hearing peers.

If you have questions regarding childhood speech/language and hearing disorders please contact Nationwide Children’s Clinical Therapies at 614-722-4250 or click here for more information.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Rebecca Lewis, AuD, CCC-A

Rebecca Lewis, AuD, CCC-A, is a pediatric audiologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Rebecca currently sees patients at the Nationwide Children's Hospital Main Campus, Marysville Close To Home and Westerville Surgery Center locations.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.